Walter Benjamin's Concept of the Image (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)
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In this book, Alison Ross engages in a detailed study of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the image, exploring the significant shifts in Benjamin’s approach to the topic over the course of his career. Using Kant’s treatment of the topic of sensuous form in his aesthetics as a comparative reference, Ross argues that Benjamin’s thinking on the image undergoes a major shift between his 1924 essay on ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities,’ and his work on The Arcades Project from 1927 up until his death in 1940. The two periods of Benjamin’s writing share a conception of the image as a potent sensuous force able to provide a frame of existential meaning. In the earlier period this function attracts Benjamin’s critical attention, whereas in the later he mobilises it for revolutionary outcomes. The book gives a critical treatment of the shifting assumptions in Benjamin’s writing about the image that warrant this altered view. It draws on hermeneutic studies of meaning, scholarship in the history of religions and key texts from the modern history of aesthetics to track the reversals and contradictions in the meaning functions that Benjamin attaches to the image in the different periods of his thinking. Above all, it shows the relevance of a critical consideration of Benjamin’s writing on the image for scholarship in visual culture, critical theory, aesthetics and philosophy more broadly.
Bourgeois ‘freedom’ is understood as a life determined by the damaging chaos that such merely aesthetic choices unleash. In the wake of the passing of tradition as the primary context for human life, aesthetic values are seen to be a woeful replacement. Specifically, they open up an existential abyss in which the meaning and value of sensible forms themselves become unfathomable and, since there is no external point of reference to them, a prison for those who inhabit this ‘world’ of total
requires everywhere, the object ceases to entertain him and instead inflicts on his imagination an irksome constraint; whereas nature in those regions, extravagant in all its diversity to the point of opulence, subject to no constraint from artificial rules, can nourish his taste permanently’ ( CJ, ‘General Comment on the First Division of the Analytic,’ 94). 45. ‘In comparison to the symbol, the western conception of allegory is a late manifestation which has its basis in certain very fertile
from out of which proceed all manifestations of life in the arcades (and, accordingly, in the nineteenth century). (A, [N1a, 6], 461) The expression ‘the book of nature’ indicates that one can read the real like a text. And that is how the reality of the nineteenth century will be treated here. We open the book of what happened. (A, [N 4, 2], 464) —(Walter Benjamin, Convolute N: ‘On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress,’ Arcades Project) Benjamin’s conception of materialist
wishes now restored, legible, and actionable. ‘The dialectical image is an occurrence of ball lightening that runs across the whole horizon of the past’ (SW IV, 403). It is instructive to compare the implications of this highly particular conception of revolutionary experience with the recurrent issue in Benjamin interpretation of the role of messianic references in his conception of history, as well as his idea of similitude. As we saw in the previous chapter, the perception of similitude
the integration of experience (Erfahrung) in a whole, which Benjamin contrasts with the way that de-racinated experience is the outcome of language used as a mere tool of communication. In the Arcades the citation is explicitly linked to the emancipatory conception of language in the early essay on language and the Preface to the Trauerspiel book. The role of the emblem in allegory is the mortification of sensuous form. It would be difficult to compare Benjamin’s use of the sentence from Goethe’s